An Indulgence of Senses: Reading Health Travels in India

Abstract: The rhetoric of travel narratives differs from place to place. Each place has a voice of its own and it is this voice which modulates the rhetoric of travel narratives. Several factors participate in the identity formation of a place. In the case of medical travels, the identity of the place is under the strict scrutiny of travellers because health is an important concern of all human beings making them highly concerned in travelling to a place that guarantees them cleanliness and safety. Thus while travelling to a new place people generally make sure that their health conditions will not be subjected to any kind of maladies. Similarly, when people travel abroad for the sake of healthcare itself, their concern on the potential of the place to ensure good health is also high. Thus the characteristic representation of the discourse of health in travel narratives is a significant area for analysis. Through this paper, I study the expression of these travel experiences in the body’s own language that is, the language of the senses.

Keywords: health travel, medical tourism, body, senses, travel brochures, incredible !ndia

The contemporary world tourism scenario is bountiful with a deluge of innovative reasons for travel. Mass media has promoted different forms of tourism like winter tourism, health tourism, wine tourism, gourmet tourism, lake tourism, pilgrimage tourism, caravan tourism etc. These different varieties of travel indicate the fact that the world is creative and innovative in preparing space for any number of travellers as possible. Among them, although travelling for the betterment of health is an age old practice, its association with leisure and tourism (medical tourism/ health tourism) is a contemporary turn. Medical tourism combines healthcare with tourism. In other words, people coming to India for healthcare are offered a package of quality healthcare and a trip to visit the local attractions of the place. My proposition in this paper is that a closer look at these health travels will emphasise its underlying motive to please the senses of the human body. To be specific, the different kinds of travel options are marketed through highlighting their potential in making people happy by pampering their senses. In reverse, travellers associate their memories with a place through their senses. This paper studies the rhetoric of the much popularised Incredible !ndia travel brochures and other travel narratives featuring India with a special emphasis on the good health of potential travellers.

India’s tourism sector has carefully blended all the essentialities required to attract travellers to this country.The languages owned by the body spoken through the different senses are directed to perform a jugglery of temptations. With all the exquisite potentialities of the country, travel and holidaying in India has truly become an indulgence of all the senses. All the five senses are equally considered as potential marketable commodities and facilitators of consumptio.

The five senses occupy a quintessential position in the Indian Tourism campaigns. The Incredible !ndia programme of the Ministry of Tourism gives a mystic aura to the travels in India with its slogans:

It is a journey of mind and soul. It is a journey of the five senses. It is a journey of self-discovery.

It is a journey of self-fulfillment (“Incredible India”).

Travel brochures effectively manipulate the rhetoric of the indulgence of senses. India is portrayed as the land where one will experience the unity of all senses which will together construct memorable times. India offers a space for refreshing all the senses. The Chikhaldara brochure of Maharashtra tourism claims that “the nip in the air will send your senses tingling” (“Chikhaldara:– The Heart of India”). Tamil Nadu Tourism claims that the breathtaking sights of the state will please the senses and will hold the traveller spellbound (“Enchanting Tamilnadu”).

Rajasthan Tourism declares itself as the incredible state of India with India’s oldest mountain range as the backdrop. It offers further sensory pleasures as in to feast your eyes on spectacular sand dunes and to watch the birds in the wetlands (“The Incredible State of India”). It can be thus postulated that wellbeing of an individual in terms of leisure is understood as a calm pampering of his/her senses. The sensory pleasures are highly manipulative in nature and it is this factor which is being marketed today.

Healthcare and the Five Senses

Gasing and the act of seeing can be distinguished as two different performances that seldom share similar characteristics. Nevertheless, neither of these actions is innocent. Gasing stands as an activity that somehow attributes power to the viewer. “The concept of the gaze describes a form of power associated with the eye and with the sense of light.… The gaze probes and masters …. The gaze objectifies the body” (Cavallaro 115). The power of gaze is significant here as one gains pleasure from looking at something. We might gaze at something that cannot be owned by us, thus satisfying the self by just gasing at some pleasurable object. Gasing can be attributed to a vigilant observer who would look steadily and intently whereas; just seeing is done by a passive observer.

The role of the sense of sight in relaxing the mind is significant. What is pleasing to the eyes could be very much subjective in nature. But it can be assumed that a traveller would make an effort to let his/ her eyes linger along the scenes that are soothing to the senses and peaceful to the mind. It is under this shade that the pampering of the senses becomes closely related to Nature Tourism. The effects of pristine nature on the health of an individual are vivid in its capability to authenticate the relationship between health and nature.

As a result, ecological perspectives have been incorporated in health promotion models and concepts like “healthy cities, health promoting schools, health promoting worksites etc” (Leger 173). The physical environment makes ample contribution to individual and community health. For example, a well-lit space with safe walking spaces can actually reduce injury as it facilitates separate space for pedestrians. Recent studies in the field of wilderness therapy, ecopsychology, horticultural therapy and nature-guided therapy support the benefits of nature on the health and wellbeing of individuals. Studies show that patients in hospitals where they could view natural scenes like trees and animals from their wards recovered faster. Similarly in prisons, cell windows that opened to a view of plants and animals lowered the number of sick calls of the prisoners.

There should not be a second thought on whether seeing something pleasing to the eyes is good for health or not. The health condition of the older generation whose lives were spent on the lap of nature is a standing testimony to the protective shielding offered by nature. With this revelation, it should be realised that a person’s psychological health is also enhanced and benefited by viewing the flora and the fauna in one’s daily life.

Tourists rely tremendously on the sense of sight when they visit places. This is subsequently manipulated by the Ministries of Tourism in order to lure the tourists to a specific destination. The Hill Station brochure of Kerala Tourism goes on to elaborate it as: “The mist clears the fog within. Perhaps contentment is being able to rise high enough to see yourself in the big picture.” Hill stations are usually located on elevated platforms to see the whole of the low-lying areas owing to their strategic geographic location. But according to this brochure, the hill stations are ‘raised’ to a position which will even enable the tourist to see oneself better. I wonder if tourists will actually fall for such word- play, although statistics show that the verbal allure is working.

Bruce Chatwin, in one of his dramatic breaks from work, faked the inability to see so well that his doctor said that he needed to view distant horizons in order to correct the eye defect. The result of this journey was In Patagonia. The sense of sight thus proves to be a crucial benefactor to the experiences of a traveller as it offers memories, health and perspectives.

The olfactory system of the human body (sense of smell) is scientifically proved to be capable of recalling memories and powerful responses. Favorite scents of individuals can range over a variety of things like sun-tan lotion, flowers, fresh cut grass, the scent of a first rain/soil which got a first shower, deodorant, old paper, fresh print paper, nature after a summer rain, butter, chocolate etc. No matter what one’s favorite smell is, it triggers the senses and memories. With thoughts evoked by smells, we will be automatically transferred to some experiences of the past. These will be closely associated to certain powerful feelings too. The recurrence of a certain smell might remind you of a place that you have visited before. It can bring back both good and bad memories. Gillian, a blogger says that the smell of burning garbage always takes him back to India, whereas his friend calls it a smell of memory (“Smell: a Travel Memory Trigger”).

The olfactory sensibilities are strongly related to self discovery. Just like the unique fingerprints of an individual, each person has a signature odour which cannot be altered with diet. Thus smell is something that is part of our ‘self’ and the earlier we come to terms with it the easier we get closer to our self. Self-discovery is a crucial concern behind travelling today. Somehow, when we travel, the act of travelling along with its experiences tends to contribute certain knowledge to the ‘self’ about the ‘self’. Thus, self-contentment will also become a part of this journey.

Aromatherapy is a form of alternative medical practice in which essential oils and other aromatic compounds are used for improving the health and wellbeing of individuals. The Travels of Dean Mahomet in India mentions a practice called ‘shampooing’. This was a practice of therapeutic oil massage which can be considered as an earlier form of aromatherapy. Dean Mahomet who trained himself in ‘shampooing’ eventually started practicing it in his own bathhouse in Europe from 1784. The testimonials from the visitor’s books at Mahomet’s Bath have claimed that “his vigorous and scientific shampooing had restored them to health” (Fisher 103). Mahomet titled himself as ‘Shampooing Surgeon’ by developing and propagating his own scientific validity for this practice.

Roberta Wilson in the introduction to her book Aromatherapy: Essential Oils for Vibrant Health and Beauty suggests that this practice opens the self to endless possibilities. Aromatherapy teaches us to see the big picture around and also our part in that whole picture. The essential oils advocate a physical and spiritual union with all things on earth and thus it makes us want to heal ourselves. The list of essential oils is inexhaustible. Patchouli oil is strong smelling, sweet and spicy. Beyond its medicinal purposes, in the Victorian era it was imported by British merchants to perfume their machine-made cashmere shawls so that they will smell similar to the authentic Indian cashmere shawls which had a lingering odour of patchouli oil.

Travel writings have also acknowledged the richness, fragrance and variety of spices and flowers available in India. Frommer’s India introduces ‘God’s own country’ in its fourth edition as: “sailors once swore that a blind man could steer a ship to the Malabar coast, guided by nothing more than offshore winds heavy with the scent of Kerala’s fragrant spices” (Bruyn 233). Indian spices and its aroma have always lured travellers straight into the lap of India.

Similarly the richness of different seasonal and other diverse varieties of flowers1 native to India have also captivated the attention of tourists. Dean Mahomet’s travels in India have included the pleasant and fragrant sightings of beautiful flowers here. According to Mahomet, the flowers with which the women adorned themselves were delightful to the sense of sight and smell.

The !ncredible Adventure brochure of northern India suggests: “The Indian Landscape turns into a formidable arena. Where pine-scented winds are the only silent spectators to an experience that’s truly incredible” (Berry 32). Here a traveller in search of a solitary time is guaranteed privacy and a silent stay coupled with fragrant winds. The state of Sikkim advertises itself as the kingdom of flowers. The Discover Sikkim brochure opens with the following lines: “They say the best way to express oneself is to say it with flowers. Come, discover limitless expressions in the bewitchingly beautiful land called Sikkim” (Berry 10). The exotic varieties of flowers and the fresh blooms in the fragrant meadows ensure a pleasant stay in Sikkim. In other words, the sense of smell too has ample appealing possibilities in India.

Samanth Subramanian in his travelogue, Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast recollects a childhood dinner party like this: “taste is the most temperamental of our senses, remarkably resilient in some ways but also malleable enough for one to be repulsed for life by a single experience” (xi). Thus it is evident that to satisfy one’s taste is a hard task.

The trope of taste is of great importance while travelling as there will be a striking anxiety about the kind of food one may have to consume in the new place. It also calibrates certain sustaining memories in the minds of the travellers even after leaving a certain place or experience. Food tourism can be called as an offshoot program of the travellers who are ready for gastronomic experiments. Food tourism can be understood as a part of cultural tourism, as the culinary penchant is deeply entrenched in the customs of a particular place. Tourism has become a key industry for economic growth in countries all around the world. Gastronomic tourism covers two spectacular missions. While it offers the travellers an opportunity to savour the flavours of a given place, it also provides an impetus to the other economic sectors of the country like agriculture, breeding and rearing livestock, and the food industry.

The Indian subcontinent holds a veritable cornucopia of every kind of food one might want. The scope of food travel in India is a booming concern. The diversity of cultures in India is reflected in its food varieties also. As a result, the same food item might get different meanings and uses in different places. They could be even prepared in varying ways in different places. The Incredible !ndia brochure on Indian cuisines suggests:

Numerous dialects, numerous traditions and numerous cuisines. Each region has its own food to savour. Each made distinctively and served equally delectably. In your travels through India, always insist on discovering what is unique to the region (Berry 28).

In this brochure it is noteworthy that the traveller is given a certain power to choose and a responsibility to make that selection.

Samanth Subramanian’s fish related memories regard fish not only as food, but as inhabiting the heart of many worlds including culture, history, sports, commerce and society. Fish is one among the most popular non-vegetarian delicacies in India. The extremely vast coastline of the Indian subcontinent makes the fishing industry a significant contribution to the country’s economic progress. Subramanian’s travelogue narrates the tale of the exotic preparation of hilsa2 in Bengal, special fish treatment for asthma in Hyderabad, art of building fishing boats in Gujarat, savoury fish cuisines of Kerala, etc.

M. J. Akbar in his book, Have Pen, Will Travel: Observations of a Globetrotter jots down that although former President K. R. Narayanan was a Keralite, he could not enjoy the splendid cuisine of Kerala’s fine hotels during his tenure. He had to pay the price for being the President as the government generally does not encourage food from private sources.

It is a well known maxim that purity of the body suppresses vile thoughts. Indian medical practices thus carefully provide instructions to achieve this purity. The diet recommended in ashrams is based on ancient dietary rules. Such a strict menu ensures the intake of all the essential nutrients without making them into heavy meals. Frommer’s India talks about the Kalari Kovilakom’s Ayurveda program in which people are to practice yoga and meditation coupled with a strict vegetarian diet.

Travellers can be extremely fastidious with their choice of tastes. But at times this adamant nature of the travellers in obtaining what they want can also make their travel a memorable one. India’s bountiful reservoir of culinary skills and culture can satisfy all the basic tastes.

The role of the sense of touch in human life cannot be neglected. The sense of touch is a gift to humanity in many ways. It is the most unique of all our senses being the only sense which can be experienced anywhere in the body: from the head to the tip of the toe. It is the sense of touch which enables us to recognise other sensations like pain, temperature etc. The Braille system of learning is grounded on tactile sensations. Hugging and patting can be considered as forms of non- verbal communication. I recall the following lines here:

And tears shall be better than kisses Smell better than touch

Because tangible things

Are always more painful here… (Feulner 3)

The therapeutic roles of the touch are also well known. The enigma of the ‘healing touch’ has plenty of references in the Bible where Jesus Christ and even the prophets touched people and healed them. But ‘healing touch’ has raised a lot of hue and cry around the world. Science has tried to prove the validity of this with the explication of an energy field that surrounds the human body.

This practice of ‘laying-on of hands’ also has its echoes in the eastern mystical techniques. Chinese medicine believes that everything in the universe is composed of ‘qi’ (pronounced as chee) which can be translated as life force. The Sanskrit equivalent of this word is ‘prana’ which will stand for energy. Thus the energy is something which is invisible to human eye, which is tapped by healers. ‘Healing touch’ thus remains on the cusp between the physical and the metaphysical.

In spite of the controversies and the different meanings attributed to the sense of touch, it still remains as a soothing sensation. Situations might come in life where one might just want to be comforted by the touch of hands. This weakness of the human mind is appropriately marketed also. The Maharashtra Unlimited tourism campaign stresses the following key words: “unspoilt, unhurried, untouched, unconquered, unparalleled, unmatched, unstressed, unexpected, unconfined” (“The Official Website of Maharashtra Tourism Development”). Here, the absence of touch is used as an enticing call to the tourists: look, here is a place which is untamed and looking for human affection and touch, so come and give life to it with your touch.

The Kerala tourism campaign has been promoting rejuvenation packages with its traditional Ayurveda wealth. Ayurveda therapies use a synchronised set of massages and steam-baths. When Ayurveda is called as the science of the body, yoga is regarded as the science of the mind. As a result, the rejuvenation packages will generally be a combination of both of these along with a specially prepared balanced diet. The Incredible !ndia campaign on yoga suggests: “meditative, rejuvenating, spiritual, cleansing, purifying, healthy, invigorating, calming or should we just call the whole experience incredible!” (Berry 49). Similarly, the Incredible !ndia campaign on Ayurveda calls it, “therapeutic, spiritual, ancient, innovative, soothing, scientific, modern, unpredictable or should we just call the whole experience incredible!” (Berry 50). The doctrines of Ayurveda understand patients in their totality ¾ physical, social and cultural factors that affect their lives.

The Travels of Dean Mahomet also mentions therapies like shampooing or therapeutic massages with Indian oils and medicated vapour baths which he introduced in Europe. Mahomet claimed that his self identification with India made him a trustworthy practitioner of this eastern technique. On the other hand, the question of otherness was reflected in the use of this therapy also. Indians being a different kind of people, Indian medical practices will be structured to meet their needs. Thus when the western body is subjected to it, it could result in adverse effects. This awareness discouraged some foreigners from enjoying the benefits of these therapies in the colonial period.

The following examples address the query whether femininity is part of the tactile appeal of health tourism. Women are generally on the foreground of health-related magazines and brochures. Brochures of hospitals will inevitably include a female nurse taking care of patients. The role of women in tourism-related promotional literature is all the more astounding. Spas and hotel visuals feature bikini-clad women. Pramod K. Nayar suggests that these women in such brochures may be a constituent of the potential pleasure that the holiday will be offering along with food and other local cultural activities (209). The Ayurveda brochures of Kerala mostly contain pictorial representations of a female masseuse treating another female visitor (usually a foreigner). Thus is it only the touch of a woman that can heal physical and psychological wounds? Or by going along with Nayar’s point is it a strategical way to portray the extent of a pleasurable holiday experience?

At the same time artists in the Western countries question the absence of art forms that appeal to the sense of touch. The ‘Please Do Not Touch’ sign found in museums and galleries is an affirmation of this tendency. Interestingly, in an interactive exhibition held at the Bedford gallery in California, the familiar museum label was replaced by a ‘Please Touch’ invitation. By this initiative the viewer was also made to get involved and actively participate in the meaning making process.

The sense of touch is not only utilised as a sensation but as an emotion too. The metaphorical indicators of touch are plenty. Peloquin says:

We try to touch base and to stay in touch, but we often lose touch or get out of touch with others. We are moved by touching situations. We reach out or lend a hand, and we are warmed when someone reciprocates and handles us well. We can boost or uplift one another. In turn, we can be tickled by someone and pleased to get a good stroke. We resent being manipulated, or brushed off. We are chafed by abrasive people who rub the wrong way (301).

The sense of touch is also associated with a certain kind of power. Physical contact could be reassuring. The Hindu dated 18th June 2011 has a photograph in its front page titled ‘The healing touch’¾ The President of India bolstering students from Kashmir in a program launched for restoring goodwill among the people of Kashmir. The act of touching could be a note of empathising with a certain situation. It is an affirmation of connectedness and comfort to others. These dimensions of the sense of touch reflect its ability to communicate, care, connect and share a reality. Thus my study reflects that if at all the sense of touch had a peripheral existence at some point of time, it is no longer pushed to the fringes. The sense of touch has conspicuously expressed its potential to become a part of health rejuvenation packages.

Travel writers have not set apart the sense of hearing from the delights of a journey. They have carefully incorporated the sense of hearing into their writings, in order to make the auditory experiences of the journey memorable. Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines3 is a travel writing based on his journey following the hidden musical trails in Australia. Every tribe owned their own songs. Thus the songs acted as maps and direction finders. The scattered trail of musical notes was similar to the footprints of earlier travellers.

Music is believed to soothe the ears and relieve tensions. Music therapy is an existing form of medical practice. In the Indian scenario, this practice is called as ‘Raga Chikitsa’. This can be traced back to the ancient system of Nada Yoga4 which has suggested years back that music upholds curative powers. The vibrations emerging from musical notes are used to uplift one’s level of consciousness. Thus by stimulating our brain wave patterns and moods, music can act as a complementary medicine.

The chanting of mantras is believed to be a method for soothing the mind. Relaxation music creates the same effect. It is proved scientifically that listening to soft music will help reduce our reactions to stress and tension by minimising anxiety and enhancing relaxation. Beyond the clinical roles of music in dealing with a whole lot of things like depressed moods, pain, self esteem, anger, sleeplessness etc, music also actively takes part in improving concentration and creativity.

The hearing range of human beings will vary from person to person. But I do not think people would actually move away from music which is appealing to the ears. It is a well known fact that Indian kings had their special court musicians. Miyan Tansen was a gifted musician and one among the Navaratnas5 in the court of Akbar. From the early colonial period, this patronage of music started to decline and it ultimately resulted in the commercialisation of music. Scholars suggest that the infiltration of the western classical canon of music into the Indian cultural landscape when compared to the penetration of western classical literature in the Indian scenario is negligible. Sir William Jones commented on Indian classical singing as: “the subtleties and nuances of native music were not so much baffling as simply too immense for the Western ear” (Advani).

No wonder that Mark Moxon in his travel writing Many Ways to Change your Mind: Travels in India finds out so many associations to music while travelling here. He was awed at the musical temples in Hampi as he wonders about the architectural geniuses who build those temples. Tapping certain stone pillars at these temples produced a special harmonics which Moxon calls ‘ethereal’ (162). But he makes fun of the musicality of the way Indians speak English and is irritated with the music from temples, Hindi pop and the sound from election related announcements. Thereby he criticises the Indians’ lack of the sense of privacy.

India is bountiful with a plethora of music varieties: folk, popular and classical each having its own sub-divisions. Travel literature has carefully portrayed this glorious participation of the auditory senses in the completion of a refreshing journey through India. Thus the Incredible

!ndia brochure on Indian art forms goes as the following: “mesmerising, musical, enchanting, breathtaking, graceful, melodious, hypnotic, exquisite, artistic, or should we just call the whole experience incredible!” (Berry 25).

To conclude, I propose that the act of travel is an arena for the indulgence of senses as the sensory perceptions are taken to unexplored regions while travelling. The idea of ‘health’ is woven subtly into travel practices and discourses as a destination to be arrived at by exploring realms of corporeal wellbeing accessible through sensory experiences. Stretching the limits of any activity is very often regarded as unsafe. But I feel that only if individuals stretch and extend the limits of endurance, will they be aware of their own limits. The senses occupy a crucial position in the pursuits of a traveller. As a matter of fact, a better understanding of the limits of the senses will prove to be beneficial for a traveller in pursuing the sensory pleasures of travel. Alternately, the shared consciousness of the senses can be held to mark the ‘success’ of travel.


1 Seasonal flowers like Strobilantheskunthiana (Neelakurinji) which blooms once in twelve years, flowers in ancient literature like Saraca indica (Ashok), Micheliachampaca (Champa), medicinal plants like Andrographispaniculata (Kariyat), Gymnemasylvestre (Gurmar), other Himalayan flowers and flowers of fragrance are all part of India’s proud heritage.

2 It is the most popular fish in West Bengal and also the national fish of Bangladesh. It is also popular in Orissa, Tripura and Assam.

3 In the Aboriginal belief, an unsung land is a dead land. Chatwin mentions: “In theory, at least, the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score. There was hardly a rock or creek in the country that could not or had not been sung. One should perhaps visualise the Songlines as a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every ‘episode’ was readable in terms of geology” (14).

4 It is an ancient philosophical and metaphysical system. It relied on the belief that nada or sound energy formed the building blocks of the universe.

5 There existed a practice of recruiting a group of nine extraordinary geniuses in the courts of different emperors of India. In Akbar’s court, this group included a singer, a biographer, a jester, a finance minister, an army general, advisors and poets.


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ELWIN SUSAN JOHN. She is a Ph.D Research Student in the Centre for Comparative Literature at University of Hyderabad. She is a UGC-JRF holder who has submitted her M.Phil dissertation in the Department of English at University of Hyderabad in 2011. She has published in Coldnoon: International Journal of Travel Writing. Her academic interests include travel writing and body studies.

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She is a Ph.D Research Student in the Centre for Comparative Literature at University of Hyderabad. She is a UGC-JRF holder who has submitted her M.Phil dissertation in the Department of English at University of Hyderabad in 2011. She has published in Coldnoon: International Journal of Travel Writing. Her academic interests include travel writing and body studies.

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